Football team searches for ‘fighting spirit’

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Football team searches for ‘fighting spirit’


The Korean men’s football team trains at the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, on Monday, three days before their critical game against Iran. [YONHAP]

With just a day to go until the Korean football team’s crucial match against Iran in the 2018 World Cup qualifiers, Coach Shin Tae-yong assembled his 26-man roster at Seoul World Cup Stadium on Tuesday to put in some last-minute training before the big game tomorrow.

The stakes are high for the Korean team, whose World Cup prospects are hanging by a thread and hinge on the outcome of the game against Iran. If Korea wins, the team will secure their spot in the World Cup, ensuring their ninth consecutive appearance in the tournament, a feat that has only been achieved by five other countries.

It’s not going to be easy. Since Carlos Queiroz was appointed head coach of Iran, Korea has lost all four matches against the team. Throughout the eight World Cup qualification matches that Iran has played, it has not allowed a single goal to any teams in Group A and became the first team in Asia to finalize their berth in next year’s World Cup.

Although Iran has already secured its spot in the World Cup, Queiroz is not willing to make it an easy match. “Our goal is to record zero losses and allow zero goals,” he said.

Shin, who’s determined to make this a win for Korea at all costs, said he would focus mostly on defense rather than his usual offensive strategy.

The “fighting spirit” has been Team Korea’s motto since it was first written on the back of their uniforms in 2006, and it looks like they’ll need a lot of it. Many of their players are returning from foreign leagues either with minor injuries or still recovering from surgery.

Of them, Son Heung-min of the Tottenham Hotspurs has received the most attention. The 25-year-old striker had to undergo surgery on his right arm after injuring it during a match against Qatar in June, but he is showing signs of a fast recovery. During the Spurs’ recent match against Burnley FC, Son appeared as a starter and managed to play a total of 70 minutes.

Although Son appears to be recovering, there are still concerns that he might not be at his A-game because he is still wearing a cast and showed less aggressive play during the Spurs’ match against Burnley. The worries are driving uncertainty about whether Son will appear in the starting lineup.

Other than Son, Hwang Hee-chan of Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg is joining the team with a knee injury sustained during practice with his club. Analysts were leaning toward the 21-year-old striker appearing in the starting lineup, but with his minor hiccup, that’s uncertain as well.

“I’ve been preparing for this match a long time, knowing how important this is,” Hwang was quoted as saying by Yonhap News Agency. “I hope I can get myself into good form and make a contribution to the team.”

With the uncertainty surrounding Hwang and Son, analysts have turned their attention to Lee Dong-gook of the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors and Yeom Ki-hun of the Suwon Samsung Bluewings. At 38 and 34, respectively, they’re two of the team’s oldest players, but they might replace Hwang and Son as starters.

Adding to Korea’s troubles: They still don’t have a goalkeeper. Initially, Kwon Soon-tae, who participated in qualification matches against China, Syria and Qatar, was under consideration, but Shin declined to add him to the roster. Kwon, like Hwang and Son, is still recovering from an injury, and Shin didn’t believe he had enough playing time to be ready for the game.

Instead, the coach brought on Kim Jin-hyeon, Kim Seung-gyu and Cho Hyun-woo to compete for the spot. The odds currently favor one of the two Kims, since they are more experienced than Cho.

There appears to be one silver lining in all of this: the Seoul World Cup Stadium may have another record-selling crowd when the two teams meet on Thursday.

“As of Tuesday, we have sold 54,000 tickets,” the Korea Football Association, the local governing football body, said. “It’s not as fast as the friendly against Brazil in October 2013, where we had a total of 65,000 fans visiting the stadium. At the time, we sold about 58,000 tickets two days before the game.”

To entice more fans, the Korea Football Association delayed the game time by an hour and lowered the cost of tickets. The association added that postponing the kickoff would ease players before the game because it will start at the same time as the China-versus-Uzbekistan match, whose outcome will also be consequential in whether Korea advances to the World Cup.

The Korean men’s football team is heading back to the National Football Center in Paju, Gyeonggi, today for final training and will have one last press conference at 2:30 p.m. The game against Iran will air live on JTBC, an affiliate of the Korea JoongAng Daily, at 9 p.m. tomorrow.

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